SALT LAKE CITY — “REPRESENTING THE UNITED STATES, TODD ELDREDGE.”

They come to the Games in search of a name. “Olympic champion.” “Olympic gold medalist.” No matter the sport, no matter the nation, the dream is the same: Everyone wants new syllables.

Todd Eldredge, the son of a fisherman, the first figure skater in his tight-knit family line, is no exception. He wanted a new name when he came to Salt Lake City last week, just as he wanted one in Nagano in 1998, and in Lillehammer in 1994 and Albertville in 1992. Each of those years, he dreamed of being dubbed, “Todd Eldredge, Olympic gold medalist.”

Or “Olympic silver medalist.”

Or “Olympic bronze medalist.”

It never happened.

Instead, he was Todd Eldredge, the guy who slipped. Todd Eldredge, the guy who got sick. Todd Eldredge, the world champion who missed a bronze by one spot.

Now here he was, Thursday night, center stage at the Salt Lake Ice Center, his final Olympics, and already his fate was sealed. Having fallen in the short program two nights earlier, he’d been dropped in the scoring to ninth place. In figure skating, you don’t win from the back of the pack. As far as medals went, Todd Eldridge, who lives in Lake Angelus, wore a blindfold and a cigarette. He was skating as a condemned man.

The music began.

His Olympic journey

“HERE COMES THE QUAD.” Earlier that morning, I attended Eldredge’s final practice. Wearing a black turtleneck, alone with his coach, he went through his routine, took a few practice jumps and ended with a beautiful spin. Then he took a small bow to the empty stands and exited.

When he came through the tunnel, I was the only person waiting for him.

Had he been a gold-medal favorite, or the Canadian pairs team embroiled in a hysterical judging controversy, he would have drawn a mob.

The herd follows leaders. Eldridge, Mr. Ninth Place, was by himself.

So we talked. I asked if, after a lifetime of effort, Thursday felt like the last day of school. He laughed and said, “That’s the right analogy.

“My coach and I just said to one another, ‘This is your final Olympic practice. Have fun with it.’ “

Is that why you bowed to the empty arena?

“Yeah. It was like, ‘OK, see ya.’ “

Eldredge smiled. On television, his features seem to be drawn by pen, a pointy chin, sharp cheekbones. But in person, the face is softer, and his strength is belied by a lithesome frame that still fits into the clothes he wore 10 years ago in his first Olympics, in Albertville, France, 1992.

He was too young then, he says, too nervous, and fighting an injured back. He finished 10th.

Two years later, his psyche was ready, but his body was not. He had flu and a 104-degree fever during the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit. He missed the Lillehammer team by one spot.

In 1998, at a Nagano skating rink, it was all supposed to jell. He skated well enough in the short program, but two nights later, holding down third place, he shorted a jump, then fell — both on the ice and in the standings. He finished fourth, the loneliest position in the Olympics.

So he did the only thing he could do: He circled 2002 on the calendar and waited four years for redemption. In between he turned 30. He felt the aches you don’t feel when you start in this sport. He saw kids more than a decade younger doing leaps that were beyond his reach. He was a used car watching a sparkling new one being unloaded at the docks.

“Getting up in the morning isn’t as easy as it used to be,” he said. “Coming to the rink, pushing yourself, it all gets harder.”

By the time the men’s competition began Tuesday, Todd Eldredge, who has won six U.S. championships, was no longer an Olympic favorite unless you mean a sentimental one. There were exciting young Russians, explosive young Japanese. Eldredge? Heck, he could look in the stands and see guys he’d competed against now working as TV commentators.

But here he was, Don Quixote in skates, still shaking a fist at Olympic windmills. And after four long years, his hopes for that elusive medal lasted exactly 30 seconds. That’s when he missed on a quad and two-footed another jump. After that, he went down. And after that, well, there was no point keeping score.

Now he stood alone in the tunnel.

“What would you tell a 20-year-old version of yourself after all you’ve been through?” I asked him.

“Hmm,” he said, giving it some thought. “I think if that person had a dream of competing at the Olympics and going for a medal, he needs to follow it.

“And even if that dream is only to skate one perfect program at the Olympics, then follow that. Do everything you can not to leave the sport unfulfilled.”

“Is that why you’re here?” I asked.

“Basically, yeah,” he said.

Todd Eldredge. The guy who tried.

His final performance

“. . . OH, HE JUST MISSED IT!” In warm-ups Thursday night, Eldridge landed a perfect quad toe loop. It was a thing of beauty. But two minutes later, when the routine began and he tried it for real, he went down on the ice. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of his Olympic life.

But there were still nearly four minutes left. And a funny thing happened. Eldridge took a breath and skated his heart out. He landed a triple axel, a triple toe loop, a flying spin, another triple axel, a triple salchow, a triple lutz, the whole phone book of jumps.

He was flawless. And as the music from “Lord of the Rings” rose to a crescendo, he went into his final flying spin, his signature move, a whirling dervish of icy motion.

And the music stopped.

And the applause began.

People know a lot about Todd Eldredge. They don’t know everything. They don’t know how deep his love for the Olympics runs. They don’t know how, after his fourth-place finish in Nagano, he went back to the rink and got the Zamboni driver to let him skate alone, in the empty arena, so just once he could experience doing an Olympic routine the way he wanted.

They didn’t see his good-bye bow Tuesday to the practice ice. They didn’t see the morning skates, the therapy, the ice-downs, the grueling weeks and months and years it took to get here.

They only saw what they ever see: a few minutes in the spotlight that didn’t work out perfectly.

And a finish out of the running. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LET’S HEAR IT FOR TODD ELDREDGE!” The noise shook the building. For a moment, Eldredge stared up in the wonder of it all. “Maybe,” he had said that morning, “I’ll take a little longer tonight with my good-bye.”

He took a few extra seconds. And then, with a spinning kiss and a gentle wave, he said good-bye to Don Quixote.

He will stay in Salt Lake City the rest of the Games, enjoying the village, the other athletes, the whole atmosphere. But competitively, that’s it. He has learned all he can from this five-ring academy. School’s out. No hardware.

But before we say good-bye, let us say this: He tried. That counts. Trying counts for everything. After 10 years, three Winter Games, and a trilogy of heartbreaking, out-of-the-medal finishes, Todd Eldredge may believe he has failed in the quest for a new moniker.

Not so. He will carry, in its truest sense, one word to follow his name, now and forever.

Todd Eldredge. Olympian.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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